When she was 11, in 1882, Polish-born Rosa Luxemburg wrote to Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm: "I'm a complete fool in politics, but there's one thing I must tell you: Tell that swine Bismarck not to put peace at risk. Do it for the sake of Europe!"
That earnest little pacifist, small for her age and with a limp, grew into the firebrand "Red Rosa," probably the most spellbinding orator and writer on the pre-World War I political scene--and in writer-director Margarethe von Trotta's eyes, one of the most maligned.
She receives a full-scale rehabilitation in Von Trotta's stern, elegiac "Rosa Luxemburg" (at the Fine Arts) and a tender and passionate characterization by Barbara Sukowa--one that won Sukowa the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1986.
It is a performance that heats up as it unfolds, becoming electrifying in its final third. That still leaves a lot of turn-of-the-century Socialist Party infighting for American audiences to hack their way through, as well as a plethora of possibly unfamiliar characters--such pillars of German socialism as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, et al.
Luxemburg was a towering figure on the late 19th- and early 20th-Century political scene: a journalist, author, speaker, a leader of the German Social Democrats and finally a founder of the Spartacists (later the German Communist Party). Ironically, it was her pacifism that resulted in most of her prison terms; she spent World War I imprisoned "as a precautionary measure."
Even after the war, her fame was not protection enough. In 1919, during an unsuccessful attempt by various insurgent groups to hold Berlin, Luxemburg was captured by members of the Freikorps, an unruly volunteer militia. Along with Karl Liebknecht, she was murdered and her body unceremoniously dumped into the Landwehr canal, where it would not be found for months.
Sukowa's intelligence (which also helped shape Von Trotta's "Marianne and Juilanne" into the piece of hypnotism that it was) anchors the film, making Luxemburg a woman as deeply connected to her friends, her plants, her yellow-eyed cat as to political dialectic.
While we are made to admire the whole woman, it's hard to overlook the fact that in private, Luxemburg was absolutely intractable, as much a weakness in love as a strength on the speaking platform.
Luxemburg had shared her life and work with Leo Jogiches (Polish star Daniel Olbrychski, of "the Tin Drum" and countless Wajda films)--writing him ardently that, because of their rare combination of shared commitment and intellectual equality, "no other couple has such potential for happiness."
But when she ferrets out that, while he was underground, he had a passing romance with a sympathetic comrade, she casts him out, immediately and implacably. Slept with someone--bad enough; worked with her--an impossible intimacy. (This is a German, not a French couple, to be sure.)
Von Trotta makes Jogiches a shadow figure. Perhaps he was one; Luxemburg complains that his answers to her radiant letters were pages of rhetoric, no references to "normal life," and none of his letters remain. (Tons of hers do, 2,500 of them.) But he remains in the film and close by her side, and Olbrychski is almost too charismatic to be moved to the background this way.
In the foreground is a woman of strength and resilience despite frequent imprisonment, increasingly despairing of the world's turn toward war. Her pacifism is the peg that Von Trotta uses as Luxemburg's relevance to audiences today, and it works.
But Sukowa's towering performance aside (a tour de force since she plays in Luxemburg's native Polish), it is still more a film to admire than to embrace, and Americans may need a brisk refresher course in European political history before the story's stormy characters stand in clear perspective.
A New Yorker Films Release of a Bioskop Film Munich Production. Producer Eberhard Junkersdorf. Writer/director Margarethe von Trotta. Camera, lighting Franz Rath. Editor Dagmar Hirtz. Sound Christian Moldt. Art direction Bernd Lepel & Karel Vacek. Costumes Monika Hasse. Music Nicholas Economou. Historical and other research Annelies Laschitza, Bernhard Von Mutius, Helmut Hirsh. With Barbara Sukowa, Daniel Olbrychski, Otto Sander, Andelheid Arndt, Jurgen Holtz, Doris Schade, JanPaul Biczycki.
Times rated: Mature
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.